By Jennifer Keliher-Venegas
It is a common emotional reaction incoming MBRS students face (and eventually overcome) after committing to a lifestyle analogous to that of a graduate scholar. Many prospective applicants may ask, “What can I do to prepare for the responsibility of balancing coursework, 10-15 hours of research training a week, monthly graduate school preparation workshops, and the expectation to present my work at national and local scientific meetings?” Alexandra (Alex) Mendoza attributes her preparation to her ever-supportive parents that instilled in her the value of hard work and education as well as the nurturing science community she became involved in at SDSU. Though the 5th year senior may have experienced initial shock as a late-entry into the MBRS program (i.e. she had only two semesters and a summer to begin her graduate school application process), Alex’s ability to break past feelings of inadequacy marveled those around her as they witnessed how her initial shock was transformed into astounding momentum and admirable success.
Alex applied to MBRS in February 2011, having joined the laboratory of Dr. David Pullman a month prior where studies the interactions of silver nanoparticles with a variety of molecules and their potential medical/industrial applications. Alex also worked part-time as a SDSU Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) chemistry tutor. At that point Alex knew she loved chemistry and had realized how fun and exciting it was to conduct research. Thus in response to a recruitment email sent out by MBRS Director, Dr. William Tong, Alex applied to the program with the encouragement of Dr. Pullman though she explained, “I wasn’t completely convinced I wanted a PhD when I applied. It was something I had thought about but I felt was an option that I would have one day in the distant future. Never did I think I would be admitted right after graduation.”
An MBRS sponsored Ph.D. panel event convinced Alex otherwise: “That day, in meeting students who were so accomplished and focused, I began to realize how the information and resources MBRS provides helps students become competitive graduate school applicants and what the program can do for me if I took advantage of the opportunities it offered.”
And that she did. MBRS funded Alex during the subsequent summer to continue working with Dr. Pullman, gaining the skills necessary to conduct her research with greater independence and a stronger foundation of understanding. Unlike other MBRS students who had been preparing for two to three years, the fall 2011 semester was a whirlwind for Mendoza. With the support of MBRS Alex managed to present her work both at the SACNAS and American Chemical Society conferences, participate in three prestigious Graduate Preview Programs at MIT, UC Berkeley, and Caltech, all while applying to 11 Ph.D. programs as a full-time student. Despite the heavy workload, Alex completed her tasks with excellence.
As Alex recited the names of the five chemistry PhD programs she has already been accepted for Fall 2012 entry, including UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, she took a moment to reflect before saying, “I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me this last year. In reality, what my accomplishments from this one year really speaks to is how amazing the program is in helping students reach their goals and realize their ability.”
The beauty of Alexandra’s story is that she is not a rare exception, but rather she is an inspiring example of how a person’s life-course can change completely when hard work and preparation meet opportunity. In the next steps of her journey, Alex plans to take the collective experiences she gained as a HCOP and MBRS scholar to serve as a mentor to undergraduates in the physical sciences and to eventually teach chemistry. As Alex said, “I want to help students break down learning barriers by teaching them how to approach challenging material differently. As it happened to me with MBRS, it might take a person more work than others but it’s do-able. That’s the message I want every student to walk away with.”